Playing to learn: Minecraft isn’t just engaging – it is changing education and influencing other start-up tech entrepreneurs in the UK

Video games have been blamed for the decline of children’s studious pursuits since the birth of ‘Pong’ – one of the first arcade video games to reach mainstream popularity. More than a decade later, video games are being used as an educational tool for young adolescents in schools across the world.


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Students enjoying a Minecraft Edu session.[Credit: Microsoft SA/ Twitter]
According to a recent report on SBS World News Australia, Merryland East 5th graders, a school in south-west Sydney, recently used Microsofts Minecraft: Education Edition, to create a Minecraft cinematic about the traditional stories of indigenous cultures. Minecraft, for the uninitiated is a game that allows users to design and construct a virtual world, by using static objects like blocks and pillars. The school has already begun sharing their creation in remote indigenous areas.

Geography and history seems to be the most obvious subject areas, which the game can begin to broach. But what about the more obscure subjects?

For Professor James Casey, a game design lecturer at George Mason University in Virginia, Minecrafts architecture-type activities can be used for other stem subject areas. He said: “It can be used for subjects like physics and measuring the time it takes for a block to fall.” He pointed out, that you could use “Minecrafts mathematically ideal blocks to learn about volume and area.”

Minecraft Teaching

Students using Minecraft to create digital art. [Credit: Darren Parks school/Twitter]

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The former EA and Bioware game-designer explained that literary worlds can also be recreated in Minecraft – proving that kid-friendly formats help improve students interaction with children’s literature. Professor Casey said: “you could take a scene from Charlotte Web, and design a farm that mimics the farms terrain in the book.” Minecraft demonstrates a new educational paradigm: one where students can take their passion for “literature and translate it into this creative environment that Minecraft offers,” he explained.

Earlier last year, Microsoft collaborated with ,a non-profit organization focused on encouraging people to get into computer science and technology, to form a tutorial aimed at helping children learn about coding from an early age. Many people don’t realize that it is also great for teaching children valuable coding skills, the lecturer explained. He added: “because children already love playing with this environment, you’re teaching them something that is basically coding, and as they get older, they can pick up more advanced coding skills.”


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Source: David Smeatons Statistical Study of Teachers Experience Using Minecraft in the Classroom

Studies have confidently stated that teachers, who have used Minecraft in their classroom, have said that the game is an effective tool for engaging learners. In a pilot study, conducted by David Smeaton, 94% of respondents strongly agreed with the statement that Minecraft is an effective tool for engaging learners in the classroom.” The study pointed out: “enjoyment improves motivation, which in turn improves learning.”

As Smeaton identified in his study, Minecrafts use in the classroom is an important step, a hugely popular game made for entertainment used by a small, but growing number of teachers to show that innovative game-based learning is in fact, worth using in educational spaces. The formidable presence of the game industry and the growing trends of game-based learning has led to Minecraft influencing other educational start-up video game companies based in the UK.

Mainstream educational games influencing British entrepreneur game studios 

Companies like Wibbu are setting the tone for future trends in the ed-tech space, with the launch of their new game, Ruby Rei, which is set to release at the end of March 2017. Their new game will help players learn foreign language skills. The company is the brainchild of former linguists, game developers, and language teacher who want to transform both the landscape of games and education with a new approach to improving learner motivation.

Ruby rei

Wibbu Studio upcoming, Ruby Rei.[Credit: Wibbu Studios/ Twitter]

In a press release, Wibbu CEO, Dean Jacobs said: “We founded Wibbu to help people fall in love with learning languages by making it – quite literally – as enjoyable as playing a video game. Speaking another language is like having a superpower, enabling you to connect with others and spread empathy through communication. With Ruby Rei, players not only get a great game, but they will also gain the superpower of speaking a new language.”

“With our unique game-first learning model you can enjoy some guilt-free gaming whilst picking up a new foreign language.”

Prior to the launch of their new flagship title, Wibbu trialled a concept product in 2015 called Wibbu English, which reached number one in the Education category rankings in over 20 countries. Subsequently, the success of their first pitch led to the mobile app company becoming a fully-fledged educational game studio.

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Co-founder of Wibbu Studio, Dean Jacobs, celebrating with his team at GDC 2017.[Credit: Wibbu Studio/Twitter]

Wibbu’s co-founder, Jacobs, was “driven by knowledge and that languages could be taught in a more engaging way.” Although their games have not been used in schools yet, the pace of educational video game implementation in schools will eventually “see us developing for schools as well as for the individual consumer.”

Video games tax relief and more specialized video games courses

According to British Film Institute, a charitable organization that promotes film and television, much of that innovation is due to the changes in tax relief in the UK. The relief provides game developer companies with the same reduced costs enjoyed by film and television. Initiatives like the tech start-up accelerator program in London and Creative Englands game lab have nurtured UK start-ups and promoted game-as-culture.

A report commissioned by the game trade body Ukie (The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment) states that there are 2,088 active game companies, operating at all sizes and scales, with world-class talent occupying many different job roles across the gaming sector. The market also contributed £755m in direct GVA to the UK economy: £639.1m from development, £63.3m from game publishing and £53m from game stores, according to findings from BFI’s Economic Contribution report.

Column1 Employment (FTE’s) GVA (1M)
Development 9,400 639.1
Publishing 900 63.3
Retail (digital & in-store) 1,800 53
Total 1,2100 755.4

The increase in contribution and educational innovation is largely due to the “rapid growth of young people with a creative flair and a skill for game designing entering the industry,” said Dr Alistair Brown, a video game narratology lecturer at Durham University. While still a relatively young industry, studying game design is an incredibly popular choice for young people seeking a career path into the industry. Universities across the country have recognized the growing aspirations of young people who want to push the boundaries of their craft by creating more specialised courses.

The higher education sector has a strong presence in the game industry. According to Ukie, 60 universities and colleges have provided 215 undergraduate and 40 postgraduate video game courses throughout the UK in the 2014. Matt Hancock, the Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said in Ukie’s 2016 annual review that: “the government has long recognized the importance of the sector and will continue to do everything it can to help.”

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A university student undertaking a game-design course. [Credit Flickr]

Even though universities are fostering innovation with games offering an alternative route to learning, Dr. Brown asserts that games can only be used “to some extent.” To study English effectively “you need to understand what’s going on in other genres, literary or otherwise,” he explained.

“You can’t, for example, appreciate the nuances of Middlemarch unless you’re also aware of the ways in which scientific discourses of the period were being conducted. You can’t understand Paradise Lost fully without having some awareness of the book of Genesis. You won’t recognise the satire of White Noise if you’ve never watched television.”

Although educational video games used for stem subjects like English would require background knowledge, Dr Brown asserts that: “UK schools need to introduce educational games to the classroom for comparison and context with what contemporary authors are doing.”

‘Ed-tech – the next growth industry

According to a creative 3D artist who preferred to be unnamed, video games have reached a legitimacy that allows it to be used in the classroom. The 3D artist said the trend of interactive learning games could be the start of more ‘edutainment’ games entering the classroom as more entrepreneur companies invest in the educational gaming field.

“Games are slowly becoming more and more useful methods of educating people. I think it is beginning to become a growing trend for companies to invest in the ed-tech area. I think it’s only a matter of time, until more companies adopt this approach in the same way Wibbu games have.”

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